The Magical Holiday Parade, a beloved local tradition that has spread seasonal cheer throughout Toluca Lake for nearly 40 years, teamed up with Penny Lane Centers on Christmas Eve to collect donations for young people who are aging out of the foster care system.
“Because we wanted to bring a little light to these children’s lives, we chose to transform the Magical Holiday Parade into a mobile toy drive for Penny Lane Centers,” says Angie Niemeyer, the event’s organizer and treasurer. “During the parade, Santa’s elves collected small, unwrapped gifts along the route. The gifts were then delivered to the children of Penny Lane.”
Penny Lane Centers is a local nonprofit organization that cares for families and abused and neglected children by providing residential services, foster family home placements, adoption services, housing and mental health services.
Studies show that one out of every four youth in foster care will become homeless within four years of aging out of the system, and Niemeyer knows firsthand the anxieties and uncertainty of approaching adulthood with little to no resources or mentorship.
“I grew up in the foster care system, becoming a ward of the state of Illinois at the age of 9,” she says. “I was an older foster child, considered to be aging out of the system, and was in and out of foster and group homes. Christmas was not fun for me back then, and it’s not fun for a lot of children in the system today.”
That’s why Niemeyer made it her mission to ensure countless young people had a Christmas they’d never forget. Thanks to tremendous support from neighbors and volunteers, she estimates that close to 5,000 gifts were collected, which included basic hygiene essentials, winter jackets and scarves, backpacks, books, toys, board games, movie tickets and gift cards for food and clothing stores.
“The community stepped up in a big way,” Niemeyer says. “Enough gifts were collected that in addition to helping Penny Lane’s foster children and families, some of the gifts were also delivered to the homeless youth in the communities served, as well as the mothers in their domestic violence program.”
Niemeyer says Santa also delivered an early Christmas gift for her and her volunteers when “the rain literally stopped just long enough for us to finish the parade,” she says. “It then started up again as we were pulling into our driveways!”
Despite weather concerns and the threat of COVID-19 — which caused the event to be canceled last year — Niemeyer says the 37th Magical Holiday Parade provided several memorable moments, including an unplanned stop near the Niemeyers’ old home.
“Our neighbors have a very special little lady in their life — an 11-year-old with a severe heart condition,” she says. “She and her mom, who were both at Children’s Hospital, were on FaceTime with her dad and brother, who were waiting for the parade to come. We stopped for as long as we could right in front of them so that she could watch from her hospital bed. The crew had no idea what was going on but happily obliged. It took some time for us all to collect ourselves and move on. It was a really special moment.”
To ensure more special moments happen for years to come, Niemeyer says the parade is always looking for volunteers and support.
“Our goal from the beginning has always been to save this community tradition from extinction, restore the assets to the best of our ability and give it to our community,” she says. “To be its most magical self, the parade needs to be run by a much larger organization that has access to the money, space and people we do not have. Who wants to help?”